In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Mystery Box.”
“Merry Christmas,” Gerald said, out loud, to himself. Carlie was already up and making breakfast. He reached out to feel her warmth still trapped underneath the blankets. A sharp corner met his hand. For a moment he plunged into a gestaltic limbo, trying to reconcile the sharp corners and flat edges of the mysterious object with his expectations of softness and warmth. He opened his eyes. They focused on a red box, wrapped with a white bow, placed underneath the covers, where Carlie slept.
Gerald sat up in bed and placed the box in his lap. It was surprisingly heavy. Its label read, in neat, printed script, “Open me if you dare.”
“Honey,” Gerald called out. “Honey, come here. I found your present.” She didn’t answer. He could hear her pacing back and forth in the kitchen. The sound of pots banging, plates clinking together, and water running in the sink told him that breakfast was almost ready. He untied the bow and tore through the wrapping paper, revealing a small Chinese take-out box. He laughed and unclasped the lid.
The bottom of the box was unusually dark; for a moment he thought it had been painted black, and stuck his finger inside to feel the texture of the paint. He couldn’t feel anything, even the sides of the box, and his finger disappeared into the darkness without touching it; then he felt something, from below the bottom of the box, reach out and grasp his finger.
Images flew across his mind’s eye faster than he could take them in. He traveled through seven places before he could catch his breath, battlefields and landscapes and endless crowds, with desolation following ecstasy and preceding unbounded rage. He felt many things in quick succession: a bullet clinking against his helmet, the cold body of his only child in his arms, soft wet sand in the spaces between his toes, the ground falling away underneath his plane, the sound of a thousand voices lifted together in one song, of his own voice merging and joining with theirs, and countless births and deaths, every one of them painful.
For a moment, Gerald flew above his own mind. He felt, rather than saw, the whole pattern of these ceaseless impressions. His inner world filled with light. Then something in his mind snapped, the light fell away, and all was insensate darkness.
Breakfast was ready. Carlie walked into the bedroom and looked at Gerald. He was sitting up in bed, with one hand thrust in a Chinese takeout box on his lap. Gerald didn’t return her gaze, even when she said his name. She slowly walked to the bed, calling his name and reaching out to him. When Carlie touched his shoulder, Gerald’s head jerked up and he gasped, making her jump back.
“I’m sorry,” Gerald mumbled in a voice not his own. He didn’t look at Carlie. He didn’t look at anything. He fell from the bed onto the floor, muttering in a language Carlie didn’t recognize––if it was a language.
The old Gerald, as Carlie would come to call him, never returned. A bumbling, incoherent, unpredictable figure took his place. This Gerald would go on to lose his job, then their apartment, then Carlie herself.
Maybe it was a seizure, the doctors would tell her. Maybe a localized stroke of some kind. His brain is visually normal and healthy. This is just one of these cases that baffles medical science, one doctor would tell her. When Carlie would finally leave Gerald on his parent’s front porch, she would have no story to tell about their lives together, no explanation for their experiences. She would walk away from Gerald with nothing but sadness and unanswered questions.
In the moment, as she helped Gerald get to his feet, no presentiment of the future entered her mind. The Chinese takeout box slid to the floor, next to some torn-up wrapping paper. When Carlie returned from the hospital to get Gerald’s medication from his bedside table, she didn’t notice that the box and the wrapping paper were both missing. Only a small white ribbon remained on the bed. Carlie threw it out, and never thought about it again.
Photo by Steven Depolo.